Hands on with the digital adaptation of Labyrinth: The War on Terror (Early Access)

By Brian Seaworth 02 Dec 2020 0

It has been more than two years since developer Playdek announced a digital adaptation of Labyrinth: The War on Terror as part of a multi-title deal with GMT Games. Serious fans of the board game may have jumped in when Labyrinth hit Early Access this past March on Steam but the recent focus on the game through Steam’s Table-Top Event likely has piqued more interest.

Are you wondering whether the game is ready for prime time? Read on.

It hardly seems possible to consider Labyrinth: The War on Terror without returning first to Twilight Struggle (2005). The similarities are no accident. Designer Volko Runke explains that the idea came out of a discussion on how to make a serious game about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the overall War on Terror. Runke saw a parallel with the bipolar, ideological struggle of the Cold War and imagined that his game could capture the essence of our current clash of civilizations using Twilight Struggle‘s mechanics.

While fans had to wait until 2020 for a true follow-on, the board version of Labyrinth started down that path ten years ago. Computer players, on the other hand, were kept waiting until 2016 for the much-anticipated computer version of Twilight Struggle. Shortly thereafter, an extended collaboration was announced for more conversions. Not surprisingly, Labyrinth topped that list, a promise now on its way to fruition.

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The Taliban have a talent for recruiting.

Despite the common roots, Labyrinth has a slightly different focus. Unlike Twilight Struggle, Labyrinth’s play plants you firmly in the present day. The 2010 release took you from 2001 to that year’s present and a bit beyond. As more years have passed, GMT has released updates, keeping the game apace with reality. Contrast also the philosophy, as stated in Twilight Struggle‘s design notes, emphasizing playability over realism. Labyrinth‘s ambition, rather, is to inform and enlighten as well as entertain. Its design doubles as a study on the aspirations of the War on Terror and how the world events helped shape a conflict that continues to vex the whole world. That said, this is a game, not a Defense Department simulation.

The first thing you’ll notice when you start playing Playdek’s Labyrinth is that it is built around 'bots'. This term signifies the structured opponent which, in the board version, uses flow charts to dictate opposing moves to be executed, relieving a solo player from having to play both sides. The software doesn’t use the same algorithm as is included with the base board game, building instead from the expansions (expanded content is not currently part of the computer version).

So, in addition to refinements, you get both a U.S. and a Jihadist single-player experience. Still, the lack of a true AI may disappoint the player looking to try the standard game against the computer. Bot play leaves no pretence you're on an even ground against the computer. Any such disappointment is salved by a pair of features. First, Early Access supports on-line, head-to-head play. Second, the developer does plan to implement a proper AI at some point in the Early Access process and make it a feature of the final release.

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Playing as the Jihadist, I bet it all on a WMD in America’s heartland.

I thought I would leap right into this one. I can usually hold my own against Playdek’s Twilight Struggle. I have GMT’s Labyrinth board game in my collection and, although I’ve not played much, I am familiar with its solitaire. To get up to speed, I returned to the game manual (which is also online) and the sample game. A very similar tutorial is part of the computer version, so you can choose the best way to get yourself up to speed. Yet, prepared as I thought I was, the level of challenge surprised and, to some extent, distracted me.

Labyrinth is based around a variation of the Twilight Struggle card mechanism, which plays through a series of hands (each representing approximately a calendar year). Unlike with its predecessor, in Labyrinth each side plays two cards in a row. Each card features an 'event', a unique gameplay element tied to various cable-news headlines. These events may be favorable to your side, favorable to the enemy, or neutral. When playing an event, you can choose whether to use that event or play the card’s point value on an operation. Operations are unique to each side, illustrating the asymmetric nature of insurgency and terrorist actions and the counters to them. Events often muster a little more oomph than simply playing a card for the points but may not comport with your current strategy. The catch, though, comes when you play an event marked for your opponent.

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The interface presents some of the historical background.

This is the game’s proverbial wild card. While you can plan out strategy using your own cards, there is that additional possibility of unplanned events coming from your opponent. Beyond that, enemy events help drive the historical narrative. An event that would never be played on its own might trigger through the opponent mechanism, invoking other interdependent events. Maybe a leader has been assassinated, changing the political landscape? Maybe Soviet-era weaponry makes it into the hands of terrorists. The bot game, while challenging for the solo player, takes something away from one’s immersion in the theme.

Labyrinth does fill a gap in presenting a strategic level treatment of the War on Terror but how well will it fill the expectations of the computer player? As a port, can it also succeed as purely a computer offering? Contrast with the typical 4X, designed from the ground up for a single player experience, which might add complexity and computational cycles to flesh out historical detail. A game designed for the tabletop, on the other hand, needs to emphasize simplicity and balance over details and historical fidelity. Both design paths have their own advantages but produce a very different feel for the end-user.

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An unlikely throw of dice puts me in a really nice spot.

Fans of the board game seeking additional play opportunities, either solo or remote play, will take to this adaptation. The decision to include these different forms and levels of solo challenge will be welcomed. Even a top-notch AI (and Twilight Struggle does itself credit) is not going to outwit an experienced player. For newcomers to this game and to the series, the current Early Access may not be for the faint-hearted. The aforementioned learning curve combines with a dependency on dice rolling that can quickly turn a game irrecoverably against you. It’s tough to appreciate the finer points of the design if it takes all you’ve got to eek out a win.

As a whole, Labyrinth: The War on Terror is pretty solid. I’ve yet to encounter a crash or a gameplay mistake (either rule violation or faulty AI). While I expect to see some further UI refinement, the game can be played and enjoyed as-is. Even in Early Access, the in-game multiplayer support has players looking for on-line match-ups. As much as I’m looking forward to some additional progress, I have no qualms about having jumped in early.

Labyrinth: The War on Terror was released onto Steam early access on March 12th, 2020. At the time of writing it was due to leave after around 6-8 months, so it's currently overdue.

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